The Life and Times of a Science Journalist

Brad Hock

Denise Grady, a science writer for the New York Times (NYT), visited campus this Tuesday, attending dinner with sophomore students at the Colgate Inn and giving an open lecture in Love Auditorium to share her experiences in journalism and medicine.

The Wellness Initiative, with the additional help of Dean of the Sophomore Year Experience (SYE) Kim Taylor, coordinated the event through Colgate’s NYT Readership Program, which brings a lecturer to campus each year.

Though Grady is a writer for the NYT, she has also written for several publications including Scientific American, TIME, Discover and Reader’s Digest. She found her niche writing for a newspaper because of its shorter time frame for writing.

“Editors of magazines do too much editing and too much fussing,” Grady said. She said that the time span for any article can range from a day to a couple of months, and that, in general, newspaper writers have less time to write articles.

Although her preference lies in writing for a newspaper, Grady said in her lecture that all journalism is important.

“People call journalism the first draft of history,” she said. She went on to tell the story of Kareem Amir, a 23-year-old Egyptian man, who, last Thursday, was sentenced to four years in prison because “he criticized the president and insulted Islam.” Grady mentioned that in dictatorships journalism is nonexistent and that no information averse to the hold of the dictator is released.

While news writers must uncover such information, she said, they avoid hints of judgment. Grady said that she takes great pains to find the right words, and takes heed to make unbiased statements in writing.

During the dinner with sophomore students, Grady mentioned the difficulty of choosing the right words, while maintaining an economy of time.

“I had a wonderful writing teacher, who gave the best advice, which I always wished I could follow, and I couldn’t,” she said. “[He said] not to worry about words at all and just write quickly and get the whole thing, get it down. When you are editing and rewriting your stuff, that’s when you worry about words.”

Grady also mentioned the isolated league in which reporters find themselves. As a reporter for the NYT, she is not allowed to take part in demonstrations, make political donations or run for a public position. For other kinds of writing, too, there are limitations. In writing for TIME magazine, Grady was unable to mention in any article the negative impact of smoking tobacco because a large source of advertising revenue TIME magazine received was from tobacco companies.

Also, there are financial limits to freelance writing.

“The pay is so awful,” Grady said of her freelance experiences from 1988 to 1999. “I did it because I really liked it, and because I had time to afford it.” Grady figured that, eventually, after “beating [her] head against the wall,” she would get a foot in the door for reporting.

Grady noted that her status as a reporter for the NYT “makes it much easier to get access to information.” Conversely, she said that when there is a journalist for a small local paper that releases insightful information, “You know that those people are fabulous reporters because they have to work really hard to get access to that information.”

Grady attributes her position at the NYT to a “confluence of events… [I was in] the right place at the right time.”

When asked whether in college she knew she would be a journalist, she replied negatively.

“No, I had no clue,” Grady said. “I was hopeless. I thought that I would be a biologist…and I spent all of my extra courses in writing. I had always thought I was a pretty good writer, but I never thought I was that good.”